By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
If there ever was a play that domesticates a big issue, to find a more expansively human one, The Children is it.
By the hot young Brit playwright Lucy Kirkwood, the fascinating 2015 “eco-thriller” that Wild Side Productions has brought to the Roxy (a venue, incidentally, set up for 90-seat houses) has as a given a nuclear disaster. Imagine, if you will, a play with a nuclear disaster in it that isn’t about nuclear disasters.
It’s set in a non-rustic English seaside cottage in the aftermath of a meltdown at the local nuclear power plant. That’s where a couple of retired nuclear scientists, Hazel (Coralie Cairns) and Robin (David McNally) are holed up, just outside the “Exclusion Zone.” Life apparently goes on, though it has a kind of improvised scramble about it: the electricity is intermittent, the menu is limited, and there’s a Geiger counter at hand to measure radiation.
What triggers this absorbing play, from the outset, is a mystery: the unannounced visit of Rose (Ruth Alexander), an ex-colleague of Hazel and Robin they haven’t seen for 38 years. Hazel turns around, and there she is, with a bleeding nose. Why has Rose come?
At first, along with Hazel, we think we know. In the chit-chat between the two women — barbed from Hazel, evasive from the more ebullient Rose — we get, for example, the information that the former has four children, the latter none. And we catch the vibe of sexual tension and hostility, that Rose may have had a thing, long ago, with Hazel’s husband.
As Cairns conveys in an alert performance full of prickly cordiality and too-quick retorts, careful Hazel — her mantra: ‘if you’re not going to grow, why live’ — is on red alert for signs that the visit is all about reviving that past. It’s a very English kind of social hostility.
The Children unfolds like a particularly subtle thriller, in dropped hints and pauses and inflections, and the odd startling declaration and curved ball, that director Jim Guedo (who’s also the designer of the set, the pulsing score, the overcast lighting) orchestrates in an adept and savvy way with his three actors. As Rose, Alexander captures a disconcerting mix of forthrightness and retreat into more conciliatory tones. And McNally, making a welcome return to the stage, has a kind of remembered ease as Robin, the scientist-turned-farmer who makes his own wine and goes off into the Exclusion Zone daily to tend cows.
Why has Rose come? What signifies the play’s elusive title? The intimate way The Children introduces and escalates ever-thornier questions about guilt and the responsibility of the older generation to fix the messes it’s made — and the younger generation have inherited — is surprising, ingenious, and disturbing. More I mustn’t tell you, except to say that The Children could hardly be more topical, though not in ways you might predict. The two women of the play have opposing views, and there are moral footholds on both sides.
So, two visions of the future and its orientation to the past. The one moment of accord is a giddy dance to the pop music of the three characters’ shared memory bank. It’s an unexpected, strangely perfect moment in Guedo’s production. The revelations mount incrementally; the ending is shattering.
Check out the 12thnight PREVIEW, with director Guedo, here.
Roxy Performance Series
Theatre: Wild Side Productions
Written by: Lucy Kirkwood
Directed by: Jim Guedo
Starring: Ruth Alexander, Coralie Cairns, David McNally
Where: Roxy on Gateway, 8529 Gateway Blvd.
Running: Thursday through March 22